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Fossil Fuels and the Rapid Retreat of Glaciers


The recently concluded Conference of Parties (COP28) marked a pivotal move toward ending the fossil fuel era for the preservation of humanity. Interestingly, this landmark decision was made in Dubai, the stronghold of the powerful oil-producer group Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). During a meeting with mountain countries at COP28, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres underscored the importance of safeguarding the Himalayan glaciers.


GS- 3

  • Environmental Pollution and Degradation
  • Conservation
  • Water Resources

Mains Question:

There is link between fossil fuel emissions and global warming that has serious consequences for the Himalayan region. Analyse. (10 Marks, 150 Words).

More on the Dubai Consensus:

The Dubai Consensus, a significant resolution aimed at diminishing reliance on fossil fuels, was ratified during COP 28 in Dubai.

Dubai Consensus:

  • Central Point: The resolution underscores the imperative shift away from fossil fuels with the goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, aligning with scientific recommendations to curb the global temperature rise.
  • Equitable Representation: The wording of the document signifies a compromise between developed and developing nations regarding climate action and responsibility.
  • Softening of Language: Earlier drafts, featuring terms like ‘phase-out,’ were modified due to resistance from countries dependent on oil.
  • Coal Utilization: The final version of the document adjusted its stance on coal, especially beneficial for countries like India, advocating for a gradual reduction rather than a swift elimination.
  • Methane Emissions: The consensus introduces a focus on reducing methane emissions by 2030, recognizing its potency as a greenhouse gas.
  • Natural Gas as a Transitional Energy Source: The document’s acknowledgment of natural gas as a transitional fuel may potentially favor countries that produce gas and overlook the necessity for developed nations to address the financial gap in climate adaptation.

About Glaciers:

  • Glaciers are ice masses that flow under their own weight, forming in areas where snow accumulation surpasses ablation over extended periods.
  • These icy formations serve as sensitive indicators of climate change and are frequently found in snowy regions.
  • Spanning more than 10% of the Earth’s land surface, glaciers constitute the largest freshwater reservoir. Despite their vastness, glaciers hold only 2.1% of Earth’s total water, with the majority—97.2%—residing in the oceans and inland seas.

Himalayan Glaciers:

  • The Himalayas boast approximately 15,000 glaciers, covering an expansive area of around five lakh square kilometers (comparable to India’s land area of nearly 32 lakh sq km). Within this region, an extensive 33,000 square kilometers are blanketed with snow.
  • The snow line, representing the lowest perpetual snow level, varies throughout the Himalayas due to factors such as latitude, precipitation, and topography.
  • Focusing on the Karakoram Range, it stands out for having the most significant glacier development among the Himalayan ranges. This range hosts some of the largest glaciers outside of the polar and sub-polar regions.
  • Numerous massive glaciers adorn the southern flank of the range, with the Siachen Glacier in Nubra Valley stretching over 75 kilometers, ranking as the world’s second-largest glacier outside polar and sub-polar areas.
  • The Fedchenko Glacier in the Pamirs takes the lead as the largest, measuring an impressive 77 kilometers. The Hispar Glacier, the third-largest, spans 62 kilometers and lies on a branch of the Hunza River.
  • In the Pir Panjal Range, glaciers are fewer and smaller compared to the Karakoram Range. The longest among them, the Sonapani Glacier in the Lahul and Spiti region, extends for only 15 kilometers.
  • Moving to the Kumaon-Garhwal region of the Himalayas, the Gangotri Glacier, the source of the sacred Ganga, takes precedence as the largest in this area.
  • In Central Nepal, notable glaciers include the Zemu and Kanchenjunga glaciers, playing a significant role in the glacial landscape of the region.

Significance of Himalayan glaciers:

  • The Himalaya-Hindu-Kush and Tibetan Plateau, collectively known as the Third Pole (TP), house the Earth’s largest ice mass outside the polar regions.
  • Positioned at a mid-latitude location and proximate to heavily populated and industrialized regions, the TP spans five countries (India, Nepal, Bhutan, China, and Pakistan).
  • Approximately 240 million people rely on glaciers and ten major rivers originating in the Himalayas, including the Indus, Ganga, and Brahmaputra.
  • Another billion people downstream in eight different nations, including India, depend on glacier-fed rivers for their livelihoods.
  • The snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas exhibit a high albedo, reflecting a significant portion of incoming solar radiation. This phenomenon influences local temperatures and weather patterns, and changes in snow cover due to climate change can impact this effect.

Impact of Fossil Fuels:

  • The burning of fossil fuels, a major contributor to climate change, has direct implications for the Himalayan glaciers.
  • Increased tourism in the Himalayan regions, extending beyond the threshold limit of glaciers, has escalated fossil fuel emissions.
  • Greenhouse gases released from burning fossil fuels, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O), trap heat, creating a greenhouse effect.
  • Additionally, the combustion of fossil fuels produces black carbon, a particulate matter that settles on snow and ice.
  • Black carbon reduces the reflective properties of snow and ice, absorbing more sunlight and emitting infrared radiation, thereby increasing temperatures.
  • Higher temperatures accelerate the melting of Himalayan glaciers, causing them to retreat. Glacier retreat alters river flow patterns, impacting water availability downstream.
  • As glaciers retreat, moraine-dammed lakes form, and increased meltwater adds pressure to the dam containing the lake. This heightened pressure, coupled with factors like glacier fragmentation and landslides, can trigger displacement waves in the lake, posing the risk of a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF). GLOFs pose substantial threats to downstream communities.


The Himalayan glaciers play a crucial role as indicators of global warming and climate change. They are located in India play a vital role in supplying freshwater to the northern reservoirs and rivers of the country. This underscores the critical importance of monitoring these glaciers. Preserving the Himalayas is essential for the well-being of the region’s diverse ecosystems and local communities.

February 2024